Wimbledon’s Uneven Playing Fields

Mired in the politics of SW19’s Russian ban, how much does lifting the champion’s trophy still mean?

 In late April, Wimbledon and the All-England Lawn Tennis Club released a statement banning Russian and Belarusian tennis players from the coveted Grand Slam event held every summer. A choice made in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier in the year, the statement claims that the organising bodies were acting alongside the rules put in place by the British government, “to limit Russia’s global influence through the strongest means possible.”

The decision was met with collective shock and apprehension in the sporting community, since the sport has historically focused on individualisation rather than nation representation on the biggest stage. While Russians and Belarusian athletes had already been prevented from representing their countries, they were given the opportunity to compete in several other tour events, as well as in the recently-concluded French Open. 

Current men’s number one Daniil Medvedev, who has played under the Russian flag his entire career, was one of the most significant players affected. He was quick to point out the unfairness of the decision, and that conventionally, tennis players were viewed as  self-employed independent workers, rather than representatives of a national organisation like in team sports. The victims of the ban would be players who depend on the increased exposure and prize money at the major events (Wimbledon prime amongst them) to support their careers in a sport which demands strength in isolation.

“It’s a delicate situation,” he said to Russian news organisation, TASS. “Where is the line? What are the rules that should lead to a possible exclusion?” The general reaction was along the same lines, with Kremlin spokesperson Dmitriy Peskov condemning Wimbledon and the AELTC for using the athletes as “political intrigues and hostages to political prejudice.” Wimbledon disagreed, and aired its concerns about “the importance of not allowing sport to be used to promote the Russian regime,” — as if they were worried Vladimir Putin would host a viewing party at the Kremlin, with foam fingers and banners, complete with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, and use it to underline the pride of the Motherland for its finest athletes.

The Daily Telegraph reported that a large part of the decision on the ban was the fear of how images of a Russian or Belarusian player receiving a trophy from a member of the British royal family would be interpreted. They could not risk undermining the months of sanctions and actions being taken against Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine offensive. Picture this — the Duchess of Cambridge awarding Belarusian 2021 semifinalist Aryna Sabalenka the Venus Rosewater Dish this year, in the centenary year of the iconic Centre Court of the All England Club, and Boris Johnson grimacing in the shadows. 

This was just the early shots in a battle of tennis’s own: the organising councils of tennis, the ATP and the WTA, would have to respond decisively to the fact that high-profile players will be barred from an independently-held Wimbledon. While the two governing bodies award points for the four Grand Slam events, they are not the bodies that organise them, as they do the majority of events on tour. The AELTC is a self-contained body and not answerable to the Tours, and in as much, did not require a green light for the measures they undertook. In May, the two bodies stripped Wimbledon of its ranking points, essentially making the tournament an exhibition event and inconsequential to the grander scheme of things. 

The ATP’s statement reads “The ability for players of any nationality to enter tournaments based on merit, and without discrimination, is fundamental to our Tour.” It continues: “Unilateral decisions of this nature, if unaddressed, set a damaging precedent for the rest of the Tour.”  Wimbledon can argue that they have a greater responsibility than to the handful of Russian and Belarusian players who would lace up their tennis shoes for their grass courts, especially as perhaps the most visible tennis tournament in the world — but it doesn’t speak well to the relationship between them and the Tours with whom they find themselves at such cross-purposes regarding definitions of right and just.

On the surface it presents a fairly straightforward ultimatum: if Russian and Belarusian players can’t earn points simply because of what their passport says, nobody else should be able to, as a matter of fairness. However, it is not all fair and rosy: to complicate matters further, the Tours did not take a step to “freeze” points that players earned at Wimbledon in 2021. The tennis ranking system works on a cyclical basis, with points won in the tournament in the current year replacing the ones they earned in the year prior. Put simply, the players who competed at Wimbledon 2021 would be guaranteed to drop those points this year. In the process, the ATP and the WTA had committed a cardinal sin: making the players they are meant to represent, and the athletes they are meant to uphold, nothing more than a gross oversight in their decision-making.

And thus there has emerged a cross-fire in which now even more tennis players are unfortunately caught. Some examples stand out: Matteo Berrettini, who lost the final to Novak Djokovic last year and is currently a top 10 player. While Berrettini is coming off the back of a hand injury that has kept him out for two months, the Italian stands to drop out of the top 20, even if he manages to go one better and win the whole thing. The same applies to Denis Shapovalov, who will inevitably drop out of the top 20. Marton Fucsovics, who surprised by reaching the quarterfinals last year, will lose over half his points, hence dropping from number 57 to around 130 — much to his chagrin. Serena Williams, a legend of the sport returning from injury and looking to play her first full tennis match in 15 months, will drop the few points she does have, and will be officially off the WTA rankings altogether, even if she musters together a fairytale run.

For all their faults, Wimbledon did get one thing right: sports are increasingly political, (even individual sports), and it is futile to pretend otherwise. Culture and politics feed into one another, and sport has increasingly started becoming a cornerstone of it. Those demanding Wimbledon restrict itself from making tennis political have bought into a ruse of reductionism. As much as the AELTC’s decision might be excessive and unjust, inaction would be equally so, not only towards the players but also to the significance of the war in Ukraine and the lives that are forever changed because of it.

Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post argues that Wimbledon does not ignore the human aspect of its decision—and in fact, is uniquely humanitarian in holding the Russian state accountable for its decisions. The message to Russia is clear: if it continues to put innocent Ukrainians under the cosh of war, its own citizens, for whom it claims to fight, shall be held accountable for their state’s actions in turn. “… it’s a necessary message: Even the most innocent Russians will be price-payers for the rapacious actions of Vladimir Putin’s regime,” she writes.

“Young Ukrainians are being bombed, shot and orphaned, and they have not participated in the war or done anything to deserve their penalty, either. Nevertheless, they are part of the conflict. Why should Russian tennis players get a bye?” She provides a retort to Peskov’s defence of the Russian players, calling it “the supercilious and remorseless language of the Russian national spokesman” in a time when “mass graves of bullet-riddled Ukrainian civilians are being uncovered in the tank-shredded mud around Kyiv.”

Powerfully, Jenkins concludes: “The ATP’s criticism of Wimbledon’s policy as “unfair” is language as grossly misapplied as Peskov’s. Unfair is not sitting out a tennis tournament in England. Unfair is a bullet in the head on the lip of a trench just for being a Ukrainian mayor.” It is a moving argument, and entirely true: in the grand scheme of things, asking top-level elite athletes (many of them millionaires with large groups of supporters) to remove themselves from a tournament is hardly the worst thing imaginable.

That said, there is only so much that can be demanded of individuals from Russia and Belarus who face the potential of being silenced by their state for airing their grievances. Former junior world number one Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova tweeted “I’m just an athlete who plays tennis, I am not a politician, not a public figure. I have no experience in this. I can only publicly disagree with the decisions taken and openly talk about it. Stop the violence, stop the war.” Andrey Rublev, while signing the camera as is tradition in tennis after winning a match in Dubai earlier this year, made his stance clear as well: NO WAR PLEASE.

Jane Coaston of the New York Times argues: “Tennis players are independent contractors. At major tournaments like Wimbledon, they aren’t competing for their countries. Even if fans back home cheer for them, they are competing for themselves.” This is a response to some who argue that the ATP and the WTA should have acted like UEFA and Euroleague Basketball, amongst many others, which had banned Russian and Belarusian teams from competing in European continental competitions. The difference is distinctive: those teams play under the banner of their country’s football or basketball federations, which simply does not hold true for tennis players outside of the Davis Cup or Billie Jean King Cup, tennis’s international team events (Russia were champions in both in 2021), or the Olympics.

Tennis journalist Jon Wertheim, writing for Sports Illustrated, backs this view up: “Does [the ban] have any bearing whatsoever on a delusional narcissist’s quest for an empire? As one player told me, ‘Do you think Putin gives a s— about tennis?’” He also brings up the seeming double-standard which exists within this decision, painting it as Wimbledon playing pick-and-choose with whom they wish to penalize and for what: “And what then, of players from a country that, say, executes a genocide against a Muslim minority? Or carries out other human rights abuses that Wimbledon deems offensive? Or players of one sovereign country that invades another sovereign country on bogus grounds of seeking weapons of mass destruction?”

Rafael Nadal is the tennis poster boy for Nike, and will be angling at winning his third Grand Slam of the year. As was eight-time champion Roger Federer, his Nike-designed trophy ceremony outfits with their gold trims and sweater threads as integral to his image as his liquid groundstrokes. The ‘swoosh’ has been mired in controversy over their use of the interned Uighur Muslims in China’s concentration camps: does Wimbledon turn their cheek at the millions that Nike’s sponsorships and player branding generate for their tournament every year? Or does the light reflecting off those coins shine too bright in their eyes? Thought so. 

There is a difference between seizing the assets of Roman Abramovich, former owner of Chelsea FC, a Russian oligarch who has shared a relationship with Putin for several decades, and preventing Andrey Rublev or Victoria Azarenka from playing tennis. Wimbledon’s decision to equate these situations, and the British government’s directives which place them under the same umbrella of Russian sporting interests, is misguided and harnesses their nationalities as political pawns to do with as they wish, for the sake of optics and in the name of placing international pressure on the Russian government. Pressurizing Abramovich in London might make waves in Moscow—but realistically, do you achieve the same result by penalising elsewise innocent athletes simply seeking to make a living? It boils down to a matter of principle in an environment which is rapidly being bled dry of any such notion.

The ATP and the WTA found themselves in a difficult position, and in the eyes of many dug a bigger hole for themselves, taking the likes of Fucsovics along with them. However, in a world as dominated by prestigeas lawn tennis is, there were few ways to exert a real form of leverage over what they viewed as Wimbledon’s own terms of injustice than to carry forward these measures. It was a play of strength against a tournament so well-renowned and important to the fabric of tennis that ruffling too many feathers would force the removal of one of the jewels from the sport’s crown. It is unfortunate that this is, for once, a debate that finds its grounds in questions of morality and ethics rather than profit and value in sport. If it were the latter, it is easier to draw a line and pick sides. Since it is the former, the waters only grow muddier.

So here is the situation as it stands: the players who do turn up to play will be competing for a trophy which consists within itself, because of the deep political roots now imbibed into the competition, a jumble of moral quandaries and a distinct lack of any tangibility outside of the prize money. Is it valuable to win a trophy which will forever have an asterisk attached to it? The winners might not complain: 128 players will still enter the draws on each side, and seven matches will need to be won over the best of the best (or perhaps not quite) to reach the summit. Will victory be anything more than pyrrhic?

Those who agree with Jenkins, or with the likes of former Ukrainian tennis players Sergiy Stakhovsky and Alexandr Dolgopolov who have swapped their racquets for guns to protect their homeland, might see Wimbledon’s insistence upon its moral stance as an example of this trophy meaning more: there can be no innocents in war, and war makes innocence impossible. An equally ardent school of thought will argue that not having the strong field of Russians there violates not only the integrity of merit-based participation and even sporting competition, but also of the right for individuals to be considered separate from the actions of their state: in times of war, our innocence is the only thing we have left to hang on to when we try and return to the way things were.

Wimbledon will forever be the golden standard for the sport — its lawns will remain immaculately manicured, the strawberry-and-cream stalls will still be flooded by fans and tourists, the all-white uniforms will remain crisp. It will have the world’s eyes on it as it does every year, its uniqueness as the last-standing grass court tournament will capture imaginations far and wide, and its champions will forever be celebrated as such. It is still Wimbledon, after all, even as it finds itself in the middle of a maelstrom of public debate. But we must not allow ourselves to forget about the politics and the back-and-forth that built up to Wimbledon 2022,  to forcefully claw away the discourse from the tennis, once the first serve of the Championships hums along the shorn grass. For better or worse, it will always remain an element of the tournament and of sports at large — as watchers, it is our duty to remind ourselves of what has been lost enroute to creating the product on show.

*Image Credit : Thomas Lovelock/Pool via AP

Kartikay Dutta
Kartikay is a literature student at Ashoka University. He loves watching, talking, and writing about all things sport, and is a contributing writer at ALMA Magazine.